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Third Ward Initiative pushes through COVID-19 challenges

College of Technology professor Jerry Evans with student volunteers in their Third Ward Initiative shirts. | Courtesy of Dhanesh Jeswani

UH’s Third Ward Initiative has started a domino effect of programs that have impacted the community surrounding the University in various ways.

In 2018, UH partnered with various Third Ward community members to start the Third Ward Initiative to assist local businesses, schools, hospitals and artists in developing themselves and their community. 

Four years later and the initiative, despite facing some hiccups due to COVID-19, is still operating.

“COVID definitely presented us with some unique challenges,” said UH neighborhood and strategic initiatives vice president and project lead Elwyn Lee. “I think in the end, through collaboration with community leaders we pushed through and came out the other side stronger than before.”

Lee, who has been with the project since its beginning in 2018, said Third Ward residents were initially a little suspicion of the project and the University’s intentions.

Despite this, Lee said the initiative has stayed true to its goal of improving the Third Ward Community, and over time the initial distrust felt on behalf of many residents has faded away. 

Lee attributed this change in perception to the initiative’s emphasis on collaborative growth between the community and University.

“A lot of folks who live here are opposed to the idea of some big university coming in and ‘fixing’ the issues in their community,” Lee said. “But by sitting down with residents, brainstorming with them and truly collaborating on the best ways to improve their community, I think we’ve shown people that we aren’t here to impose anything on them.”

So far, the initiative has sponsored a multitude of various programs designed to better the lives of Third Ward residents.

In terms of education, the Third Ward Initiative has partnered with four elementary schools, one middle and one high school to improve test scores, reading comprehension and academic success. 

Through this partnership, Lee said the initiative has provided free tutoring, an after-school STEM program for students of color and a program where UH football and basketball players read to elementary students

Since partnering with these six schools, all of the schools have raised their test scores and are no longer considered to be underperforming academically, Lee said.

“It really has been a great success,” said Blackshear Elementary principal Alicia Gobert-Lewis.

One program under the initiative that has been particularly well-received has been the SURE program, which partners C.T Bauer College of Business students with local entrepreneurs to foster economic literacy and provide businesses a means for pursuing sustainable growth.

“It really has been transformative, both for myself and my business,” said local business owner and SURE program member Troy Ray. “It’s totally changed the way I present myself online and how I go about running my business.”

The initiative’s impact isn’t limited only to the community however, as one of the major justifications for the College of Medicine’s founding, Lee said, was premised on its potential ability to serve surrounding areas that experience health care inequity. 

Although the College of Medicine’s own building isn’t primed to open until July of this year, it has already hit the ground running with the Lone Star Circle of Care clinic, a subsidized affordable health care clinic serving the Third Ward area. 

Finally, the initiative has also sponsored a variety of local arts and culture events throughout the community.

Working in partnership with Houston-based artist and UH interdisciplinary practice professor Rick Lowe, the initiative created the Cultural Loop project, a community arts endeavor with the goal of creating eight culturally conscious art installations around the Third Ward area. 

While the project has been stalled by COVID-19, Lee says they are planning to revisit it as COVID-19 restrictions are relaxed.  

Ultimately, while the Third Ward Initiative has certainly faced a number of challenges, both administrators and community members seem to agree that the impact it has had so far has been a positive one. 

“We’ll keep doing what we can to preserve the cultural identity of Third Ward while ensuring its residents get the resources and support they need,” Lee said. 

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